EU Parliament becomes shelter for vulnerable women during COVID-19 crisis

European Parliament Helmut Kohl building used as a temporary residence for women in a difficult situation in the context of the COVID-19. [Eric Vidal/European Parliament]

A European Parliament office in the Brussels city centre has been turned into a temporary centre for particularly vulnerable women affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Parliament staff are also cooking meals for charities and driving medical workers around, as part of efforts to help local authorities.

The Helmut Kohl building, named after the former German Chancellor, is located close to the Parliament’s main headquarters in Brussels. On Friday (30 April), part of the building has been isolated, about a hundred civil servants’ offices in the building were transformed into individual rooms and showers and washing machines have been installed.

The goal is to alleviate the existing shelters in Brussels, guarantee the required social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and offer special protection for women in need.

“We have noticed that during the crisis more and more women end up living in the street and we have more and more cases of domestic violence linked to the confinement,” Sébastien Roy, the director-general of Samusocial, the organisation managing the centre, told EURACTIV.

Roy explained that they aim to give a sense of security to women they cannot guarantee in mixed centres. “We have already two big centres for families,” he added, “what was lacking was a centre for the women.”

The women hosted in the Parliament facilities were already relying on social services due to several reasons. Some of them lived on the streets. However, the Samusocial director-general said that as a consequence of the lockdown and its socio-economic consequences, the number of people in need has increased notably over the past few weeks 

“We want to make sure that they do not sleep on the streets,” he said.

About 60 women are hosted in the building at the moment. For now, only women who have tested negative in COVID-19 are accepted in the centre but soon, the facilities will be adapted to allow others who live in the streets and have not been tested yet as long as they stay in quarantine.  

“We are used to staying three, six, ten sometimes in the same room. Having certain intimacy is quite something already. Furthermore, it is a very nice, clean space and the people here are very kind,” said an anonymous woman, according to a testimony recorded by the European Parliament.

Parliament’s humanitarian action

The action is the result of a personal initiative of the European Parliament President David Sassoli, who offered help to authorities in all three hosting cities for the institutions’ facilities, namely Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. 

The consultations with local authorities led to a number of initiatives. “The main challenge was to provide the aid swiftly because the need is now,” a parliament spokesperson told EURACTIV. 

In Brussels, around 95% of the staff are performing their tasks from home, plenary sessions have been reduced, and most of the MEPs participate in committee meetings and debates through videoconferencing apps, so the Parliament is practically empty. 

Now, along with hosting up to hundred vulnerable women, the Parliament’s canteen personnel is cooking meals for a number of charities feeding people in need and for the Saint Pierre hospital. Kitchens in Luxembourg and Strasbourg are providing meals for NGOs as well. 

Moreover, the institution’ drivers are giving rides to medical workers in town. A Parliament’s spokesperson said that while people providing help are getting paid, as usual, taking part in this initiative is voluntary.

Strasbourg, where the Parliament convenes once a month, is in one of the most affected regions in France. In the near future, the institutions’ headquarters in the city will host a detection centre too. 

Activities in the Parliament are foreseen to re-start as of September. However, Samusocial’s Sébastien Roy explained that they do not expect the pandemic to be over by then. 

Local authorities are already working to make sure the women hosted do not go back to living in the streets and to prevent others from suffering social exclusion but “the crisis will probably create a new kind of poverty,” Roy added. 

He said the pandemic is somehow creating opportunities for organisations working with people in need, notably in terms of social distancing and hygiene measures that could lead to an improvement of the quality of the infrastructures and the services they provide. 

However, he admitted, “the difficulties will come after the crisis.” 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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